There are relatively few females working on commercial fishing boats today, and even fewer as captains. When Canadian photographer Anya Chibis heard about a female skipper through a friend, she was determined to meet her.
I heard about skipper Hollis Jennings from a friend who worked as a deckhand on her 30-foot fishing boat for several seasons in Alaska. I’ve always worked in predominantly male-occupied professions, and I felt that I would find a kindred soul in Hollis Jennings.
Anya had never heard of female captains before, and she wanted to learn more about Hollis’ story, but despite reaching out and having a mutual acquaintance, her calls went unanswered. Hollis had more immediate things to worry about (like her crew and her boat), so being the subject of a documentary film or photography project was not high on her list of priorities.
She was foremost focused on her work, and taking on an extra person on her small boat was a liability and nuisance. In the end, I knew that my only chance to convince her would be to show up at the dock, so I booked the trip to Alaska and did it. My persistence paid off, and she agreed to take me on a short three-day trip along the coast of South East Alaska.
At the time of the shoot, Hollis was the first and only female skipper in the South East fishing fleet, a fleet of over two hundred boats. According to the Bureau of Labour and Statistics, commercial fishing is one of the USA’s most dangerous jobs. Hence, the lack of females in this profession is likely due to misconceptions around their physical ability to perform dangerous and strenuous tasks.
Being a fisherman means working with nets and gear on slippery decks. If an accident happens, medical help is often days away. But the majority of fatalities are due to drowning. Although I was lucky not to have experienced the rough sea on that particular trip, I certainly felt how easy it is to end up overboard even on a good day.
Photographing and filming while on a moving boat came with its own set of challenges. While the crew was accustomed to the boat’s constant rocking movements and sounds, this was a new sensation for Anya, who had to adjust to boat life while holding several cameras.
Fishers are so used to the ocean’s constant movement that they have trouble walking straight once they step on the shore. For me, it was the opposite. It took a bit of time to find my balance and pace. I was constantly cleaning the cameras, as well as my own eyes from the splashing saltwater, and trying to avoid the jellyfish’s stinging bits.
While women are still relatively uncommon on fishing boats, this has started to change in recent years due to people like Hollis breaking physical endurance stereotypes and encouraging others to follow suit. Due to her experience photographing and filming Hollis, Anya met other women in the industry and started to sense a trend — women are more likely to hire other women.
That summer, Hollis had three women (not including herself) working on her boat alongside two men. She once joked that perhaps it was the first time in history when women outnumbered men on the fishing boat.
There is little more rewarding in life than a new journey that introduces us to incredible people and shows another way of life. But this trip was more than that. For me, it inspired more profound research into the practice of fishing in Alaska, and it introduced me to more fisherwomen in recent years.
Photographer: Anya Chibis